Coming of Age in Apartheid-era South Africa | Debut Spotlight

South African–born, Toronto-based first novelist Bianca Marais’s Hum If You Don’t Know the Words (starred review, LJ 5/1/17) tells the absorbing coming-of-age story of nine-year-old Robin Conrad. Living as a young white girl in Apartheid-era South Africa, Robin forms a new family after losing her own.

What inspired the creation of Robin and Beauty as your main characters?
When I was a child growing up in South Africa, most of us didn’t have kindergarten [classes] or preschools in our neighborhoods. Our care fell to black women who’d left the homelands to work for white families as maids. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing Xhosa woman, Eunice, work for my family and help raise me. It was my love of Eunice that inspired me to write a novel about the relationship between a white child and a black woman. From there, Beauty and Robin were born.

It was only in writing the book that I realized the tragedy of apartheid wasn’t the inhumanity….that prevented Eunice and me from sharing each other’s lives, as I’d always thought [it was]. The real tragedy was that I was in Eunice’s life at all. In a fair world, Eunice would have been able to raise her own children instead of having to lavish her maternal affection on someone else’s.

“Hum if you don’t know the words” is such a memorable line. What came first—the title or the story?
The story had been at the back of my mind for many years, but I was reluctant to begin writing because I didn’t think I could do it justice. When I finally sat down to work on it in February 2013, the title was It Ain’t Over ’till the Fat Lady Sings. Within a few chapters, though, it changed.

I purposefully wrote that line into a scene because I love that moment when I’m reading a book and spot the word or phrase [behind the title]. Also, “Hum if you don’t know the words” perfectly sums up so much of what Robin and Beauty experience. Even though they’re both floundering, they keep going in the hopes that they’ll find their way. It’s a metaphor for so many themes explored in the novel.

You evoke well the feeling of Johannesburg during the 1970s. How did you approach time and place?
In the earlier drafts, I focused more on getting the time period right than fleshing out the setting. Johannesburg felt so familiar to me, but the time period wasn’t since I was just a baby then. I wanted to anchor the story firmly in that time, so I took care to get the clothing, hairstyles, music, and social and cultural contexts right.

Once I was working on edits, I realized that the setting could become a character in its own right. My editor Kerri Kolen made me see that even though I was familiar with the setting, my audience wouldn’t be, and she allowed me the freedom to add over 10,000 words to flesh out South Africa so that it could come alive on the page.

Could you share your research process?
A great deal of research went into writing this book because besides wanting to get the historic backdrop right, I was very aware of how ill-equipped I was to write from a black woman’s perspective. I was reluctant to do so at first and approached it with a great deal of respect. I resolved to research as I was going along and that continued throughout the drafting and rewriting process.

I read a lot of books about apartheid, watched documentaries, did online reading, [and] studied newspapers (both local and foreign because the South African press was greatly censored during apartheid). I used my parents as a resource because my father has such an amazing memory, consulted with cultural and language experts at universities, reached out to friends of all races in South Africa, and then hired sensitivity readers and consultants.

Were any scenes difficult to write?
Many scenes were emotionally difficult because they required me to tackle my own privilege and put myself in the shoes of the very people my race had been oppressing for generations. Writing those scenes required me to hold a mirror up to myself, even though I didn’t like what I was seeing. It’s easy under those circumstances to gloss over things that you should actually be poking a stick at.

What’s your next project?
I’m currently halfway through the sequel to Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. In one of the earliest drafts, Hum spanned four decades and the final version only spans [15] months. [These characters’] story is far from over for me, and I’m extremely gratified to see [from] my readers’ feedback that they want to spend more time with Robin, Beauty, and the rest of the supporting cast.—Stephanie Sendaula

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula ( is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

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